Friday, December 09, 2005

"Whole language" appreciation

Loony education theories can have unintended consequences: They can be a rich source of hilarity. So it is with the psychotic guessing game promoted by whole languagists.

Here, a writer gives thanks to the whole panoply of whole language inventors and promoters:

Thank you Whole Language. Thank you for your many pearls of wisdom. Thank you for Context Clues. Thank you for Prior Knowledge. Thank you for the Initial Consonant. Thank you for Picture Clues. Thank you for Miscues.

But most of all, thank you for my wife. The other day she and I were riding along the highway and saw a sign for a town called Verona, so my wife read "Veronica". It's very simple, you see. First she applied Context Clues (she knew we were looking for a name). Then she applied the Initial Consonant ("V"). Then she applied Prior Knowledge (she already knew of a name "Veronica"). She put these Whole Language strategies together and ... success! At least, as much success as we can expect, I suppose.

Thank you William S. Gray for inventing "Look-Say" and the "Dick and Jane" series of basal readers. Thank you A. Sterl Artley for helping Mr. Gray and for your phonics-bashing diatribes of the 1950s and 1960s. Thanks to the National Education Association for giving Mr. Gray and his friends two years of free promotion in the NEA Journal in 1930 and 1931. Together you all had managed to essentially eradicate phonics from America's public schools by the 1950s and early 60s, when my wife went to school.

But more importantly, thank you for my wife. A while back she was reading a pamphlet about something that was described as "venerable". Now that's a word you don't see every day, so what did she do but cleverly pull out her Whole Language skills? Context Clues, you see, told her that she was looking for an adjective. Next was the Initial Consonant "V". Then out came the Prior Knowledge -- she simply thought of an adjective she already knew that was about the right length and started with "V". And voila ... success again ... she came up with "vulnerable". Perfect! Well, at least as perfect as things get in publik ejukayshun, right?

Thanks Kenneth Goodman for reviving the floundering Look-Say, adding a few New Age twists and renaming it Whole Language back in the early 80s. Just like the Whole Earth Catalog and Whole Grains and everything else that was Whole ... what else could it be but wonderful? Without you, Kenneth, the evils of phonics might have returned, and then where would we have been?

Thank you Dorothy Strickland for "Emerging Literacy" -- the idea that kids are naturally inclined to read if only we will surround them with literature. Thanks to all the other Whole Language textbook authors who cranked out textbook after textbook that either omitted phonics entirely or disparaged phonics openly. Thank you Teachers College, Columbia, for promoting Whole Language to teachers' colleges worldwide. Can you even imagine how effective you were in eradicating phonics instruction throughout the English-speaking world?

Thank you International Reading Association (IRA) and National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). For decades you appointed people like William S. Gray and Kenneth Goodman to lead your entire organizations in the fight against phonics. Somehow you raised hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of dollars to pay PR firms to get their opinions so heavily quoted in the press that the public is now completely confused in its ideas about what works and what doesn't work in reading instruction.

But once again thank you for my wife. A while back she was reading about some Congregational Church. And do you know, even with the Context Clues and the Prior Knowledge (about what names churches might have, presumably) and the Initial Consonant, she still managed to come up with "Congressional Church". Even though this was years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday.

Thank you Alfie Kohn and Dennis Baron and Mike Ford and Gerald Coles and Harvey Daniels and Gerald Bracey and Susan Ohanian and Stephen Krashen and Jim Trelease and all the other propagandists who lash out continuously against successful practice in general and phonics in particular. Through your tireless efforts, the public is continually misinformed. Without the public's perpetual state of confusion and misinformation, Whole Language would not have survived a single day. Thank you for keeping Look-Say and Whole Language and Balanced Literacy alive to create yet another generation of people who can read as well as my wife does.

Speaking of my wife, last night she was reading a brochure aloud about a museum with an "eclectic" collection, and what do you suppose she said? You guessed it (and so did she): "electric"! Maybe the absence of the Initial Consonant threw her off.

Thank you Marie Clay for inventing the phenomenally expensive Reading Recovery, a program installed in virtually every public school, it seems, and designed to treat the educational effects of Whole Language by applying yet more Whole Language. Thank you for giving my school district more stuff like this to spend my tax money on. How is it that I am not clever enough to imagine things like this?

Thank you Richard Allington, current (2005) president of the International Reading Association, for your campaign of misinformation against Direct Instruction (a successful phonics-based program). The cleverness of your propaganda puts the Soviets, the Chinese Communists, and all the other tyrants of the 20th century to shame. You know of course that Direct Instruction (DI) participated in a huge study (Project Follow Through) in which all the participants except DI failed, and in which DI succeeded brilliantly. And so you twist this around to say that by virtue of its association in this study with the constructivist-favored instructional styles that failed so miserably, we should all conclude that DI must necessarily also have been a failure. Your logic, so typical of that of the IRA, the NCTE, and the rest of the Constructivist Cabal, is irrefutable.

But once again thank you all for my wife. Hardly a day goes by when she does not demonstrate the success of Look-Say, or Whole Language, or Balanced Literacy or whatever you all call it now. Really, it's so amusing I really can't even quantify it. I never know what she'll read next ... and neither does she! Just imagine all her Miscues!

The sheer unpredictability of listening to her read is astounding ... and unpredictability is the essence of entertainment, right? I mean, she might read "deleterious" as "delicious" or perhaps "injurious" as "injustice" or "parabola" as "parachute" or maybe "quintessence" as "quintuplet", or "signify" as "signature". I could go on and on almost endlessly. The laughs just never stop here. And all thanks to you. All of you.

So thank you, Whole Language. Where would we be without you? The possibilities just boggle the mind.

-- Anonymous

[Note: This author normally signs his work, but in this case declines because he doesn't want his wife identified in this manner.]


Anonymous said...

I learned to read (at age 3, in 1962) with the "Dick & Jane" books, but using a purely phonics-based strategy. My mom had four or five of these books, and once I caught on, I went through them in a month or so.

Even at the time, the stories seemed inane!

NYC Educator said...

I remember Dick and Jane. They were the pits, but I did learn to read. It's remarkable that phonics works because English is largely not phonetic.

Quincy said...

"It's remarkable that phonics works because English is largely not phonetic."

NYC Educator, I'm really not sure what you mean by this, care to clarify?

NYC Educator said...

Well, I sometimes write on the board "ghoti," and ask my students what it spells. I tell them it spells "fish."

There's the "f" sound from "enough," the soft "i" sound from "women," (which oddly changes the letter in the second syllable, but the sound of the first)and the "sh" sound of "nation."

I do this to show my ESL students that their problems with English spelling are natural, and little fault of their own. Compare English with Spanish, Hebrew, or Korean, in which everything sounds more or less as it looks.

That said, I personally believe teaching phonics is the way to go.

Go figure.

TMAO said...

I teach English Language Learners, and finally took a deep breath and threw myself into phonics -- a word that is, itself, not terrible phonetic -- and the results have been amazing, especially for those kids whose families immigrated post-1st grade, and so never got that type of instruction in the first place.

Quincy said...

NYC Educator -

You're example embraces a very specific fallacy, that complex phonemes such as "gh" for /f/ and "ti" for /sh/ and rule exceptions like "women" prove that English is not, on the whole, phonetic. Yes, English is more complex than languages such as Spanish, which have simpler letter-sound correlations (when the letters "ll" and "rr" are acknowledged as single entities, of course).

Take a look at this article from Linda Schrock Taylor on the 29 rules, 70 spellings, and 44 sounds:

It reveals that many of the things we are wont to call problems with the phonics of English are actually logical patterns that can be learned and used.

NYC Educator said...

I agree with you, actually. There are many patterns. They're confusing, nonetheless, if you don't know them, and actually thorough phonics instruction ought to cover them. I think it's a little tougher for students like mine who are accustomed to more regularity.

I'm pretty sure phonics, including all the exceptions, was how I learned, though it was some time ago. As for Dick and Jane, I think Dr. Seuss pretty much put the final nails in their coffins some time ago.

It's certainly possible to encourage phonics without being insipid.

Quincy said...

IIRC, the Dick and Jane books were a product of the "look-see" method, not of phonics. Also, I think Dr. Seuss is one of the best friends for those teaching phonics.

NYC Educator said...

Wow. What's the "look-see" method? I've never heard of it, despite being, apparently, a product of it.

Disgruntled said...

I always thought it was the "look-say" method. Simply an early version of whole word or whole language: memorize the whole word rather than trying to sound it out.

Quincy said...

disgruntled is correct, it is "look-say". (Commenting when tired is usually not a good idea!)

Now, the Dick and Jane books were often taught using phonics, but that doesn't mean phonics, as a method, should take the blame for them.

NYC Educator said...

It sounds like we need a scapegoat.

What about New Jersey? That always works for me.

Anonymous said...

I learned to read in 1962 in First Grade when I was not yet 6. I remember Dick and Jane, I remember practicing flashcards with my mom in the evening. But I don't recall it being a struggle at all (although my mother now admits that she thought I would have a nervous breakdown at the time!) I feel that reading came easy for me, it was the area of comprehension where I took a nose dive for years. It wasn't until later when I was given the time for what is now SSR (Sustained Silent Reading), by a wonderful junior high teacher, that my comprehension made great gains.

I have taught kindergarten now for a number of years and when teaching reading I do teach phonics, but I NEVER give my students a page out of a phonics book. That is just busy work and either they already get it and the page is pointless, or they continue to "not get it" (phonics) and they just guess and conintue to struggle.

But I feel it is imperative to also teach what the "whole language" people were/are teaching! They wanted what their students are reading to "make sense" to them, and by having children think about what they are reading, to use context clues, and to look at the pictures on the page and use those as clues as well. That is not makes sense even to kindergartners!

I continue to give my students time nearly every day for SSR, they have a love for books and check out my books daily out of my own personal library to take home to read together with their families. Kids need a variety of books in their hands daily in order to learn to read better and to develop a love for reading.

just sayin'

Instructivist said...

But I feel it is imperative to also teach what the "whole language" people were/are teaching! They wanted what their students are reading to "make sense" to them, and by having children think about what they are reading, to use context clues, and to look at the pictures on the page and use those as clues as well. That is not makes sense even to kindergartners!

Context clues are important for comprehension, not for decoding. The mistake of WL folks is that they use context clues for decoding.

the phonics queen said...

I loved the funny anonymous story -- I have a husband who learned by look-say with the same sad results. I also taught phonics by the Spalding Method to K-1, and found that most English words are phonetic (yes, English is LARGELY, percentage-wise, phonetic); we just focus on the words that are not (naturally). Also -- I always remember learning French. Without phonics I could not read or understand it. Like the person teaching ESL, it is a logical approach; like the person who referred to Schrock - 70 phonograms (includes the alphabet), 29 rules and 44 sounds -- not too much to teach; helps kids make sense of it all.